Judge rules Fallon man incompetent to stand trial in church shooting | NevadaAppeal.com

Judge rules Fallon man incompetent to stand trial in church shooting

Steve Ranson
LVN Editor Emeritus

Murder suspect John O’Connor appeared in Justice Court in July.

Based on testimony regarding competency evaluations for a Fallon man charged with murder, Judge Thomas Stockard ruled Tuesday in 10th District Court that John K. O'Connor is not competent to stand trial for killing a fellow church member in late July.

O'Connor is accused of one count of murder and one count of battery with substantial harm after fatally shooting Charles E. "Bert" Miller, 61, with a handgun during a sacrament meeting on July 22 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on East Richards Street. He is also charged with shooting Duane Miller, 64, with a handgun causing prolonged physical pain. Miller suffered a leg wound but was treated and released from Banner Churchill Community Hospital. The third count is assault with a deadly weapon when O'Connor allegedly aimed his handgun at Mike Whitaker.

Police Chief Kevin Gehman said O'Connor left the church on foot after the shooting and returned to his home one block away. Gehman said officers and deputies surrounded O'Connor's home, and after a hostage negotiator placed several phone calls to the residence, O'Connor agreed to leave his house. He was placed under arrest.

At a status hearing July 26, Justice of the Peace Mike Richards ordered a mental examination to determine if O'Connor was competent to stand trial for murder.

Dr. Steve Zuchowski and Dr. John Moulton testified in district court during a hearing that lasted more than one hour Tuesday afternoon. They agreed on at least one criterion that O'Connor was incompetent to stand trial based on their evaluations. Court appointed Reno attorney Richard P. Davies, who is defending O'Connor and has experience in trying capital murder cases, cross examined both Zuchowski and Moulton.

During the hearing, members of Miller's family sat in the front row behind the defense and prosecution.

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Zuchowski works full-time at the University of Nevada, Reno's School of Medicine as an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and does clinical work at Lake's Crossing, a maximum security psychiatric facility providing comprehensive forensic mental health services, according to its website. Individuals are court ordered to Lake's Crossing Center from throughout Nevada for evaluation and/or treatment for restoration to legal competency. Moulton is a psychologist at Lake's Crossing.

"We both did a general psychiatric evaluation that basically screens for symptoms of mental disorders as well as gathers general history of a person's life, work, relationships and so on," Zuchowski said.

According to Zuchowski, they looked at three prongs or criterion related to Nevada Revised Statute: the ability to understand charges against a person; the ability to understand court proceedings and the role and terms associated with the courtroom; and the ability to assist counsel with reasonable degree of rationale and understanding. Zuchowski said O'Connor has an adequate understanding of the charges but also feels the defendant would respond well to training to understand the terminology of the court and of individual roles.

Zuchowski, though, said he doesn't think O'Connor comprehends the seriousness of the court proceedings and lacks the ability to assist his counsel because of his belief system. Zuchowski said the defendant's belief system reveals he basically justifies his actions because he felt Miller tortured him along with others.

"He does not meet the competency criteria in Nevada," Zuchowski said.

When asked by Davies if Moulton made similar findings, Zuchowski affirmed his question. Chief Deputy District Attorney Lane Mills asked Zuchowski if O'Connor would meet competency standards if he were on medication.

"Really, the only treatment that is known for his treatment is an anti-psychotic medication that is administered daily," he said. "There are factors that it can be administered monthly or every third week by injection, but that is really the only viable option that is able to restore him to competency.

Zuchowski added a comment about O'Connor's assistance during the evaluation.

"He was pleasant and cooperative — cheerful than what I expected in his situation," Zuchowski explained, but adding less structure would elevate the risk level for holding O'Connor. Both Davies and Mills expressed concern the medication could result in side effects, but Zuchowski said any side effects would be low.

Davies asked Zuchowski about the evaluation. Zuchowski said he conducted a 60-minute interview and asked questions regarding O'Connor's psychotic and personal history and determined doing the full battery of competency evaluations was necessary because of the level of O'Connor's disillusioned thinking. Zuchowski said the evaluation was not scored but an overall impression of the voluntary statements and answers to the question led to a typewritten evaluation. Zuchowski said the evaluation was neither video nor audio taped.

Zuchowski re-emphasized O'Connor's difficulty with the third prong because the Fallon man doesn't have the ability to help his legal counsel.

"His opinions he gave me were very bizarre and consistent with somebody who has a mental illness," Zuchowski said.

Midway through August, Zuchowski said O'Connor began taking one anti-psychotic medication that helps him with sleeping and his moods. The UNR professor said the clinic hasn't detected any side effects with the medication, which has been administered in low doses.

"So far, so good," Zuchowski said.

Moulton has been certified to conduct evaluations for more than three years. He said prior to the evaluation, he reviewed the criminal complaint and police report outlining the charges against O'Connor. Based on one personality test, Moulton said it allows evaluators to determine if the subject is genuine in answering questions.

"His thinking was a little off," Moulton said. "There was some paranoia — some significant paranoia actually — semantic complaints, a sense of demoralization."

Moulton said O'Connor thinks if he can tell his version of the events, he will either be found not guilty or there will be a hung jury.

"I don't think that is rational," Moulton said. "I think the defendant's condition is legitimate."

Moulton also measured O'Connor's psychotic thinking and expression and said the Fallon man displays anti-social behavior across the board. According to Moulton, O'Connor meets the third criterion for not being competent at this time, while Zuchowski said the defendant meets all three. State law states evaluators only have to agree on at least one criterion.

Stockard then rendered his decision.

"The court is prepared to entertain a finding that John Kelly O'Connor is incompetent, and he doesn't have the present ability to aid or assist his counsel during any time," Stockard said.

Stockard added O'Connor poses a dangerous risk to society and will continue to be housed at Lake's Crossing. According to the court, O'Connor will remain at the facility until such a time the court and/or evaluators determine he is competent to stand trial.